Can solar panels make the revolution public?

A revolution is underway, but until now it has largely been invisible. Cutting carbon out of our lives will mean changing the way we do business, the way we travel, the way we produce energy, and even the way we eat.

But so far, national attempts to tackle climate change have gone unseen by most people.

Behind the scenes, in a world inhabited by economists and policymakers, things are happening. Carbon credits fly back and forth invisibly in the EU Emissions Trading System. The Renewables Obligation pushes energy companies to invest in clean electricity, imperceptibly changing the energy mix.  And diplomats gear up for another round of international negotiations in faraway conference centres.

I know these things are happening because I read about them when I get to work in the morning. But on my way to work I see no evidence of a low carbon revolution. International negotiations and the price of carbon are irrelevant as I walk down the street the bus stop. I may be passing newly insulated houses, but I can’t see into their lofts so I wouldn’t know.

Nothing about the buildings I pass, the transport I use, or the shops I go to suggests that anything is being done about climate change.

But this could be set to change. Soon we might see visible signs of low carbon living springing up around the country. In the past five months solar panels have been put up on several thousand south-facing roofs in the UK and they are set to appear on thousands more homes, schools, hospitals and farms in the near future.

This is because since the government introduced feed in tariffs in April this year, generating electricity from small-scale renewables has become a serious money spinner. Government will pay people up to 41.3p per kWh for the electricity they generate, which adds up to around £800 – £1350 per year for a solar panels on a south facing, un-shaded domestic roof, depending on the size.

For householders who can’t afford the upfront cost, a clutch of companies are now offering free photovoltaic solar panels and free electricity while the sun shines, in return for keeping the tariffs for themselves. They are aiming to deal with more than 120,000 homeowners by 2015.

This rush on solar panels could have a whole myriad of exciting consequences. For the first time we may see widespread, publicly visible signs of low carbon living, beyond putting out the weekly recycling.

This visible evidence is important because people often believe what they see over what they are told. Seeing solar panels glinting on top of houses, schools and hospitals is much more convincing proof that the way we live is changing than reading about it in the papers. It also shows that climate change is serious enough to merit action, and brings a reminder of it into daily life.

As well as raising awareness of low carbon living, solar panels could help show people that being green is normal. Studies show that in areas where householders make public commitments to recycling (by displaying recycling stickers, for example) recycling rates go up. It’s human nature to join in with what others around us are doing.

But in addition to normalising being green, solar panels could also glamorise it. Research shows that people are more likely to make green choices when they think other people will find out about it, or when the product is highly priced (thus showing wealth). Solar panels are both visible and expensive, and so will appeal to sections of society who are driven by status and popularity.

Community groups and local authorities could also invest any profits they make from feed in tariffs into further local low carbon projects, such as community wind farms or insulating homes, creating a virtuous cycle.

Feed in tariffs have attracted critics who say that they are an expensive way to reduce carbon emissions, and that small-scale renewables will never make a sizeable contribution to our electricity needs. But this fails to take into account the human dimensions of the challenge we face in decarbonising the UK.

The upcoming solar gold rush is exciting because it can help make being green relevant, normal and desirable.  And along with local projects like London’s new bike hire scheme, it can take climate change out of the realm of speeches and newspapers, and put it slap bang into the middle of daily life.

This article was first printed in The Environmentalist Issue number 104, 20 September 2010

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